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Plaster and a few other items.

So, our dining room has a very weird texture to the walls. We have a 1929 house with mostly plaster walls (as far as I can tell). But in the dining room, it's as if they applied plaster and then pulled the plaster-spreading-thingie away from the wall, creating this menacing-looking popcorn-y texture. 

Needless to say, it's bugs the hell out of me. Not to mention, it makes the walls look darker than they are because all those little bumps create tiny shadows. The walls look like they have some kind of plaster acne. 

How does one repair this? Plaster over it? Would anyone suggest this might be a DIY project? If I were to hire someone to fix this, does anyone know what this might cost? 

Next item: When searching for a plaster repair person, I found a website featuring this unbelievable plaster work above. I can't believe this is someone's home. Please tell me that have giant stone lions on either side of their front steps. This place is insane. 

Next to last item: I've said it before and I will repeat myself: House Beautiful magazine is ON FIRE. The latest issue just has the biggest, plumpest, juiciest photos. With so much detail in each photo you really end up learning more about how the room is put together simply because they are so good at giving us what we want: bigger, better photos of pretty rooms. Yum. Good work, kids.  

Last item: Is there a homeowner's equivalent to The Joy of Cooking? I often look around my crumbling house and don't even know where to begin and have no idea if certain projects are worth tackling on my own or not worth the headache. If you have any basic home repair books you would recommend, please leave a comment. 

Top photo from House Beautiful.


Jules said...

You need to hire a drywaller experienced with slick wall. They'll do something akin to a skim coat, but more detailed and complicated (and thicker, of course). Be sure you use someone experienced with this type of finish, because they will need to make the entire surface smooth and continuous, which takes a lot more skill and attention to detail than just spraying mud on the walls. Otherwise, you'll wind up seeing divets, lumps, dips and waves--and that will bug you more than plaster pimples.

We had it done during the kitchen remodel and in another part of the house just to patch areas where we removed decaying built-ins. It wasn't cheap. Just a few patches on one wall cost over $400. Our plaster walls are smooth as glass, though, so it took the drywaller time and skill to blend in the patches (lots of blending and smoothing--think of it as 3-4 skim coats). A good guy will try to do it in as few coats as possible, and will shine lights from various angles to make sure it's slick from all sides.

If you saw our walls, you would never know there were holes in them over two feet tall.

Bree said...

This shit COVERED the walls and ceilings of my beautiful 1911 Victorian. And it didn't just look like acne - it looked like cystic acne. HUGE bumps all over the place. The drywaller guy just shook his head. Anyway, total cost of redoing ceilings and walls to a slick finish in my dining room, living room, entranceway, staircase, upstairs hallway and three upstairs bedrooms = $11,000. So budget around $1,000 - $1,500 for a room, I'd say.

And there is NO WAY I would attempt to DIY this. Just added it to the price of my house (which I would've paid $11,000 more for) and was happy.

the quarter rat said...

You can take off the popcorn yourself with a putty knife, then sand. If you're careful, the skim (finish)coat should be largely intact. You could do the touch-ups yourself if you have the patience, but my guess is that you'll be so sore after removing the popcorn that you'll be willing to pay someone else to do it (There's a reason that most plasterers are ripped).

I'd suggest that you talk to a painter who also does floating (most floaters are frustrated plasterers). I can't help with an estimate in Seattle because prices vary wildly by region.

p.s. if you do the touch-ups yourself, use plaster of paris, not spackle. Make sure that the person you hire does the same.

Anonymous said...

I didn't understand any of the above answers, except that "Throw money at it" seems to be the theme.

the quarter rat said...

If you lived in NOLA and were really cool you could have Mr. Earl fix those bumpy-ass walls:

He's cool as shit.

the quarter rat said...

@anon 10:30

A reasonably crafty person who can sand, prime and paint woodwork can do this. I've done it myself, but it's backbreaking work, especially if the walls are over 9' and require scaffolds. I was also paid to do it.

There's a reason people are willing to pay people to refinish floors and plaster walls - it sucks.

Anonymous said...

I love diy. But I now acknowledge that unless it's a cheap and cheerful fix, a pro is the only way to go. I have wasted so much $$ on my dogged attempts to achieve perfection.

hello gorgeous said...

I have one room like that (but it's a rarely used extra guest room) and I was told a skim coat would probably take care of it (I was planning to wallpaper with raffia over it). I just painted it and moved on but if it were the dining room, I'd have it done.

I have a plaster guy, Clarence, whose family has been doing it for 4 generations and he'll do just about anything for $400. I found him from a neighbor who had used him. Word of mouth is the best way to find someone. Ask your neighbors and other contractors you already love.

I think you might also be able to drywall over it (cheaper). I know someone who did just that and my contractor did it in a small area in a bathroom upstairs and you can't tell the difference.

hello gorgeous said...

P.S. I am loving House Beautiful...

Be the change..... said...

Jules is right -you need a skim or 'slick' coat over that. Not cheap though :-(
House Beautiful has really done a good job filling the niche after house and garden shut down. I love their newer format with the articles as interviews! To think I had written it off a few years ago and stopped getting it in the mail!

Jennifer said...

The skim coat process worked for us but like jules said, it's rather complicated ... and expensive. Our house was built in 1889, so it's essentially a money pit.

And WORD on House Beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Can you post a picture?
Also...plaster work is expensive. You can hammer out the plaster and put up new drywall for less than a plaster craftsman...still work but it will allow you to insulate if you want..I had a friend recently drywall a bunch of old plaster work. I another friend rub her roller deep into the crevices with one color and go a shade lighter on the top coat without pressing hard. It gave a very cool effect (as long as the two shades are literally only a shade of difference) She did two forms of 'beige'.
In NY they brag about having plaster vs drywall and I've heard at parties some snobs even tap walls to check if it's plaster or drywall. I do think it's probably easier and cheaper overall to just get rid of it if you don't like the texture.

drwende said...

"Throw money at it" is always the theme with old house repairs. This is because houses must absorb a certain amount of money to stay standing, and if the prior owners didn't feed the house, then you have to shovel in way more money to make up for their neglect.

There's an OOP Old House Journal book that covers a lot of the "what's fixable, how" issues; although it's 20 years old, it's pretty accurate.

OHJ and This Old House web sites also used to cover a lot of ground (I haven't looked in a while). OHJ will try to get you to believe that everything is DIYable, but if you're shuddering with horror at the mere thought, that's a hint that it isn't.

the quarter rat said...

@anon6:51- Not really:
1. Drywall still has to be taped and floated, which can cost roughly the same as spot repair on plaster.

2. Plaster on lath is roughly 1.5" thick, drywall can be anywhere from 3/8" to 3/4" - it's usually 1/2" or 5/8". That leaves your baseboards and other millwork sticking out about an inch unless you shim out the walls to the right thickness (even more labor)or remount millwork (labor + loss of original materials)

3 Stick framing on pre-WWII houses tends to be pretty irregular - the plaster is meant to even this out. Drywall on old framing usually looks like shit, unless it's skim-coated (like the finish coat of

I could give other arguments like plaster + lath having the same R-value as fiberglass insulation, plaster being more repairable, blah, blah, blah. I see enough "Uncle Joe" contractor work here in NOLA to know that it's cheaper to do it right.

Design Junkie said...

I've found Martha Stewart's Homekeeping Handbook to be close to a Joy of Cooking for homes. It goes from cleaning tips to light diy projects (like stripping wallpaper) to choosing building materials. Usually, I'm not a huge Martha fan, but I've found it useful. You also find out little facts bout her personal life that demonstrate how much fun it must be to visit Casa Martha,"I almost always asks guests to remove their shoes as well...Most people don't mind this at all--and how it saves on wear and tear of the floors!"

Decorina said...

There is also a plaster finish called "Swedish Plaster" - not to be confused with the Swedish interiors penchant for painted furniture. It is applied by hand and has a beautiful texture that can be somewhat similar to a sprayed on "knocked down" finish that is used on drywall or gyp board in many homes today.

I've seen the finish you describe in your home in a couple of homes here in Colorado. It is typically in 1920's Tudor type homes - I think they may have been thinking "castle"; a client of mine called the sconces with a hammered iron finish the Munster lights...they were everywhere in her 1930's Spanish Revival home.

You may need to find a plasterer with experience in the older type of finishes. If it is plaster over lath there are a couple of options for changing it. I don't particularly care for the lumpy castle wall finish - my sympathies. Depending on moldings (baseboards, crowns, etc.) you may be able to use 1/4" gyp over the acne. It sounds like you may want a smooth finish in the end so you will have to find a drywall contractor that does commercial work and specify that you want it finished smooth. Applying 1/4" gyp over the pimples (after removing moldings and switchplates, etc.) could be less expensive than other methods.

My 1908 home in Denver had plaster applied OVER the original smooth plaster in the kitchen. It was like being inside a frosted birthday cake. When we started scraping it off we found that before he frosted the ceiling and walls he used a chisel to knock holes in the original plaster. So after all the stalactites were gone we had to skim and coat the surfaces numerous was a nightmare. Of course since it was the kitchen there was grease and dirt on all the tops of the bumps - it was horrible.

Decorina said...

quarter rat: She is not talking about sprayed on "popcorn". That crap was used from the late '50's on to cover up bad drywall ceilings in residential construction. It is lightweight and relatively easy to remove - she has lumpy plaster over lath. That is a whole other ball game.

Melissa H said...

Hi Decorno! I know that if it's popcorn added to the walls, you can buy a little machine/scraper at Home Depot that will take it off, as long as you vacuum it up immediately (lead paint, etc.). If it's NOT popcorn on your walls, you're dealing with something I've never seen, so you may not want to listen to me. :)

That being said, my husband and I just bought our first house and bought two Black and Decker Books (considered them an investment): "B&D Complete Home Improvement" and "B&D Complete Home Repair". Amazon has them. I'd recommend them so far! :)

Anonymous said...

Try painting it a lighter shade. Or dim the lighting.

Decorno said...

Hi everyone - it's not popcorn. It's def plaster, just applied with a horrible texture.

As for dimming lights, we have the lights in there (overhead and lamp) on dimmer already and I have painted the room white. You can't put lipstick on this pig. Sounds like I definitely need to have the walls skim-coated with plaster.

Thanks for all of this great advice. Keep it coming.

the quarter rat said...


If it's the textured plaster, you just have a nasty sanding project.

Sorry for the pontificating - plaster is a huge issue with my job right now...

Lisa said...

I'm not sure if anyone posted this as I didn't read all of the comments, but I highly recommend the Home Depot 1-2-3 book:

They put what experience level is needed to tackle the project along with all of the tools, time required, etc. It's probably saved us thousands of dollars in hiring someone to do the work, because you really can do a lot of this stuff yourself. Maegan said...

all that molding combined with vertical and mini blinds? are you kidding me with that? horrendous. and for sure they have lions, pillars, gates and gold hardware on the exterior.

Anonymous said...

I agree about the blinds, love maegan! I actually like the crown molding and think it could be paired well, like with some type of glitzy non-Regency style (midcentury Frank Roop-style?), but everything on the walls is way too much considering the ceilings are low. And the fact that it's just tacky.

Ivy Lane said...

I'm dizzy!!! Just get out your wallet and throw the money at it! I would call in a professional for that one for sure...and please post the finished product for all of us to see!!

Gonna go to the newstand for the latest House Beautiful!

Kristen said...

We have the same awful textured plaster in some, but not all of our rooms. Because it's in such bad shape, we'll probably remove it and replace with drywall - not our ideal, but a workable solution. In a few rooms, the walls are smooth but the ceilings are swirled. I've been slowly skim coating those, which has been awful and dirty, but manageable.
(Blogged here:

Anonymous said...

I could also change my car's oil or cut my own hair too, as an DIY, but there are people that like to do that........
For artisan specific undertakings budget for the expense - it's worth it - DIY the things you enjoy and understand.
Perhaps an unglamourous way to spend $$ but those things typically are.
If there's no budget for it, big whoop, just don't draw attention to it - most likely you are the only one who checks out the wall pimples.......if the room is swished out in an interesting enough way and filled with interesting people WHO'S the wiser?!?!?!

Anonymous said...

I'd rather trust the job to people who have done it a hundred times before, or 500 times.

It's like hiring a surgeon. If you can, you hire someone who has done exactly the same procedure, over and over.

If it were only one wall, it might be amusing to learn on it. But not a whole room.

balsamfir said...

Depends on what period the plaster stucco was put up. In parts of my house its plaster from the thirties. I've been warned it may have asbestos in it. In other areas, from the 50's on, they tried to cover structural cracks with a similar looking joint compound(which probably also has asbestos). I removed one ceiling of this in about 3 hours by saturating the drywall with water, and then using a drywall blade, scraped it off. It separated from the original flat plaster, which I'm going to fix myself using a terrific product called Master of Plaster(see their website). Wear a serious mask and head covering. I've done this in another room and been very happy with it, but I wanted a softer countrified look and I HATE drywall in an old house. So you can skim over the plaster if it's not too thick, (I don't think sanding will be very healthy or successful if it's 1920's/30's gypsum plaster), or you can knock it down to the lathe and redo, or hire someone, or ulp, drywall. Leave the lathe up till you're sure.

decorno said...

balsamfir - Oh, I am so with you. I hate drywall in an old house, too.

As for asbestos. Funny you mention that... I just took a sample of some icky popcorn ceiling to the lab today to see if it contains asbestos. I am having someone remove that stuff in a few weeks. I doubt the stuff in the dining room contains asbestos. But I suppose you can never be too careful. I am going to have to try this Master of Plaster stuff. Thanks for the tip.

Tara.Fields said...

Why people do shit like this to plaster is beyond me. My man's entry way (the one in his house, I mean) has some kind of vicious stalactite plaster on the ceiling and about a foot down the walls to the top of the tall wainscot. It's HARD plaster, too so will be a bitch to fix. My own living room had heavy popcorn blown in over the nice plaster tray ceiling. The plaster didn't even appear cracked so WHY? Ugh. Out of fear of asbestos and the cost to abate it, I skimmed over it with 3 layers. It wasn't such an ordeal as I do veneer plasters and the like for a living, except that it always sucks to work on ceilings AND I started it on some freak 90 degree day in May before the glazer came to unstick my windows.

That all said, you generally get what you pay for when it comes to wall textures and word of mouth means a lot - and even more if you have multiple mouths saying the same thing about the same person.

Anonymous said...

Really, you think you would really notice that what you had was drywall, not plaster, and that the difference would bug you?

I'm looking around at my drywalled room and find it pretty inoffensive.

Decorno said...

Correction, I can handle drywall in an old house if it's all drywall, or all perfectly smooth. My challenge is that so much of my old clunker is so imperfect that if someone came in and gave one room perfect walls, it would look bolted-on and weird.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I see what you mean. Good pt.

I do think you could get away with the one-perfect-room thing IF it's a room that's not part of the house's main "flow"--like some of the back bedrooms, or a bathroom.

Anonymous said...

My favorite home reno book is from Taunton Press:

A Complete Guide
Michael W. Litchfield

It almost always has the answer and my 1904 Queen Anne, Shingled, Balloon Framed, Victorian in Portland would not have survived my novice DIY without it.


Elizabeth said...

Our house was built in 1935, has plaster walls, and has lots of weird texture issues. I can;t tell if it was intentional or was a repair or what, and I would love to know if I can just sand them down and paint, but I have no idea. I am really grateful you posted this question though so I can try and figure it out!
We have the Reader's Digest home repair book and it's great - lots of people recommended it.

Anonymous said...

give these a look-see

1. "How To Operate Your Home" by Tom Feiza - this was given to us by our home inspector when he looked at our home that was biult in 1954. Great, simple pictures. Even I can understand it which is great because I tend to become an idiot when it comes to home repair.

2. 'When Duct Tape Just Isn't Enough" published by Popular Mechanics. Interesting because it will tell you a 'quick fix' and then give you reasons to 'ditch it' or 'fix it'. Anything with the word 'duct tape' has to be good.

3. "New Fix-It-Yourself Manual" published by Reader's Digest.
Great reference.

I often wonder if having three books of this nature is over doing it but two we did not purchase for ourselves so I don't feel so bad. We are also suckers for the "Money Pit" radio show. This was more info that you needed.

Plaster is beautiful.

Anonymous said...

give these a look-see

1. "How To Operate Your Home" by Tom Feiza - this was given to us by our home inspector when he looked at our home that was biult in 1954. Great, simple pictures. Even I can understand it which is great because I tend to become an idiot when it comes to home repair.

2. 'When Duct Tape Just Isn't Enough" published by Popular Mechanics. Interesting because it will tell you a 'quick fix' and then give you reasons to 'ditch it' or 'fix it'. Anything with the word 'duct tape' has to be good.

3. "New Fix-It-Yourself Manual" published by Reader's Digest.
Great reference.

I often wonder if having three books of this nature is over doing it but two we did not purchase for ourselves so I don't feel so bad. We are also suckers for the "Money Pit" radio show. This was more info that you needed.

Plaster is beautiful.

~M said...

You've got some great book suggestions, but I thought I'd also suggest Home Maintenance for Dummies By James Carey & Morris Carey. They're my uncles and we come from a long line of builders and finishers. They have a couple books out there, they write an AP columns and also have a terrific syndicated radio program, "On The House With the Carey Brothers" can find more info on them at:

Anonymous said...

I second the recommendation from Melissa H! The best books out there for DIYers are the Black & Decker books. There's a website that lists all of them. Check out

The books are filled with step-by-step instructions and photographs. No other book even comes close.

kerri d said...

Just chiming in with the HB love. I got my subscription a couple years ago - first issue of the change in layout - and it has never disappointed. Unlike some of the thicker, higher-end-marketed ones. Veranda, Elle Decor, I'm looking at you.

touch ups said...

This similar kind of problems are very common now a days as well. I am glad you have shared the solution here from your own experience. Will it be better to hire someone or is it possible to repair by ownself?

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